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An interview with Noam Chomsky - Part II

- by Kajal Mukhopadhyay, ReelTalkFilms, 15 Apr 2009

This is a continuation of An interview with Noam Chomsky - Part I from our Nov 2008 issue.

Urhalpool: You have always preferred alternative media. In India, everything is mainstream, even those that are alternative are mostly the garbage of the main. Trying to negotiate a space at the main, do you think as an alternative anything at all can exist?

Noam Chomsky: I prefer the term Ďindependent mediaí to alternative. Alternative already begs a question. It assumes that something is the norm and these are the things that are kind of on the side. Now if you look at the history of media in the freest countries of the world, England and the United States, itís very different elsewhere, but here itís been well studied. Itís quite interesting, and Indiaís going through the same process. There was a period in the nineteenth century when in both England and the United States there remarkably was a free press. In fact, those were the periods of the freest press in both England and the United States. There were a very large number of papers. They were independentówell, they werenít independent. They represented groups, different groups that published their own newspapers. So there would be labor, workersí newspapers, ethnic newspapers, political newspapers, a very large variety. They reached a large part of the public. There was intense interest in them. People participated. They wrote for them, they read them carefully and so on. There was an attempt at first in England, which was more advanced in those days, to try to stop this because the business world didnít like this, of course. At first they tried censorship, then various kinds of regulations. Nothing worked. But what finally worked was just the concentration of capital in advertising. Reliance on advertising increased in the late nineteenth century, and gradually the parts of the press that had substantial capital or that could attract advertising revenue grew and developed to the point that newspapers published by working people in the mills couldnít compete. And that did, in fact, lead to concentration of media. The same thing happened in the United States. I think itís been more than a century since you could start a new newspaper in the United States because you need just too much capital. Advertising revenue of course means you reflect the interest of business. The working people in a textile plant donít advertise, but a manufacturer does. So gradually you get the concentration of media, and in England, it wasnít until the nineteen sixties that you ended up almost entirely with business press. So as late as the early nineteen sixties The Daily Herald, which was kind of a central democratic popular based newspaper, had more readers than the main newspapers put together. But it did not have concentrated capital, and it couldnít pick up advertising revenue so it declined. And the tabloids in England, which are ultra right wing rags, were labor orientated newspapers in the nineteen sixties. By now, you know, thereís essentially nothing, I mean, the newspapers are what they are, but their independent presses are gone. 

In the United States, it was the same, but earlier. This is a business run society, so it happened earlier. But even as late as the nineteen fifties there were about eighteen hundred labor newspapers in the United States which reached maybe thirty million readers. From nineteen fifty until now it disappeared, so now we only talk about alternative media. Radio and television were quite interesting and reflected the way a business run society works, and the United States is much more free than most countries but also more business run. Then radio came around in the nineteen twenties. In most countries it became a national asset. And, of course, the airways are publically owned. In the United States there was a struggle between the groups that wanted to privatize it and groups that wanted to keep it public like everywhere else. On the public side were labor unions, churches, educational institutions, popular groups and others. On the business sideÖ this was the New Deal period with the greatest labor influence but it was all privatized. The private sector won, and they won on an interesting principle very much like you said on the principle of the freedom of speech. So in other words, if you have radio concentrated in the hands of the corporate sector, then you have freedom. But if you have a public system, a national system, in which (inaudible) participation, thatís not freedom. Thatís kind of like, you know, freedom of slavery. When it got to be about television around the nineteen fifties, again the rest of the world originally went public; the United States wasnít even in a discussion. It was just immediately privatized. So the whole of television here is commercial, corporation television. In fact, the media in the United States are major corporations, and most are parts of major conglomerates. And even they have been reduced. Thereís this regular study done by the University of California, Professor Bagdikian, called the Media Monopoly. The first edition of that came out I think around nineteen eighty, and he had fifty different centers of media and the latest edition, I think, was down to eight. And itís a natural process of what happens in the business world generally. So like a high tech industry, for example, itís not a free market system, itís an oligopoly, itís based on the state sector. Sometimes it reaches almost absurdity, like commercial aircrafts, one of the biggest exports. Itís now in the hands of two corporations and a few small ones but itís basically Airbus and Boeing, and they are constantly in litigation with the World Trade Organization about which one gets larger government subsidies. In fact, both of these are only state based institutions but thatís competition. High tech industries are pretty much the same, and the media is the same. Theyíre interlocked, theyíre not identical but they come from a narrow sector of the business world, and nevertheless there are plenty of opportunities and in fact, they arenít used enough. 

I canít talk about India, but here when cable television came in the early seventies Congress, remember every time the radio and television are privatized thatís a gift from the public. The public owns the spectrum and it gives it away to CBS or Fox or somebody as a gift, a present for you. Hereís a trillion dollar present for you from the public pocket. When cable television came in there was enough public pressure so that Congress passed legislation which allowed particular corporations to get the rights to cable in a particular region, but it required them to establish a public facility. So in Cambridge, a few blocks from where we are, there is a public television station which is, itís not CBS, but by world standards itís pretty well equipped and thatís available to anyone and theyíre not used. There is a lot of media critique here in media activism, but they are overlooking real opportunities. These exist in every real community in the country. And if you wanted, you could initiate the programs here from your own point of view. And itís a failure of activism and organization not to make use of opportunities that are available. Nevertheless, quite a lot is done. There are many community radio stations. There are major internet sites which millions of people access every day which have a range of information. So there are opportunities. But theówhatís called mainstream, is pretty uniform, pretty much like the political system, a pretty narrow framework. You canít depart from it. With critical issues you canít depart from it at all. So, say, letís take the invasion of Iraq, itís impossible in the United States to take the same principled position that we took when the Russians invaded Afghanistan or when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Then we took a principled position. We said aggression is wrong. Even if you get away with it, itís still wrong. The Russian atrocities in Chechnya are condemned even though Chechnya by comparison with Iraq is a humane society, building boom, you know, the rubble of Grozny is now rebuilt. People have electricity and so on. I mean, if General Petraeus could achieve in Iraq anything approaching what Putin did in Chechnya, they probably would crown him king or something. But we cannot take that principled position in regard to our own atrocities. The invasion of Indochina, Vietnam and the rest of Indochina, we just devastated them. It was (inaudible) of aggression. It was maybe, just like today. Take the Democratic candidates today, Obama and Clinton. They can say itís a strategic act, a strategic blunder (Obama). Weíre entering into a civil war that we cannot win (Clinton). But nobody said that about the Russian invasion of Afghanistan or anybody elseís atrocities. But when itís their own crimes, unmentionable, unthinkable. The same with terror. We can talk about somebody elseís terror. But you canít talk about, say, Reaganís terrorist wars in Central America, which probably wiped out four countries, way beyond weíve contributed to anyone else. Itís just not mentionable, itís not thinkable. 

Actually, George Orwell noticed that. Everyone has read Animal Farm. Almost nobody has read the introduction to Animal Farm. The reason is because it wasnít published. But he wrote it, and in the introduction he says Animal Farm is a satire of this hideous totalitarian state. But he said in free England itís not that different. He said in free England unpopular ideas can be expressed without the use of force. And then he goes on to discuss it and doesnít have a very elaborate theory about it. About two sentences. He says one reason is the press is owned by wealthy men who have every reason not to want certain ideas to be expressed. And another reason is just a good education. If youíre sort of immersed and have gone to the best schools and you are part of the daily culture, itís just instilled into you that there are certain things you wouldnít dare to say and again thatís pretty general, thatís pretty accurate. And the concentration of media in the hands of conglomerates, business conglomerates is one aspect, but just subordination to the prevailing indoctrinated system, which is part of the elite culture picked up in schools and universities and so on. Itís another part, which is very effective. You canít think these things. You cannot think the thought that the United States opposes democracy throughout the world. You know itís true. You cannot think the thought that the US invaded Iraq by the standards of Nuremburg that the government should be hanged. You canít think those thoughts even though they are all true. In fact, obviously true. And you canít think the thought that the United States is not a functioning democracy even when you see things like the fact that some kind of national healthcare was politically impossible in two thousand four but has come politically possible in two thousand and eight when the only variable that has changed is big business support. You canít think what that entails. Therefore if you did a search you wouldnít find a word written about it although itís pretty dramatic. 

And the same thing holds on almost any other topic you look at. When you take a looming international crisis, which could be very seriousóthe threat of war against Iranówell, every candidate, every newspaper has a uniform position on this. You read in The New York Times that Iran is defying the world because itís enriching uranium. The fact of the matter is world opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of that. So the non-aligned countriesÖ are the large majority of the world. They vigorously supported Iranís right to enrich uranium like any signatory of the non-proliferation treaty. But theyíre not part of the world. The world means we rich, powerful people. So therefore your act is defying the world, itís not accepting our orders. US opinion has been carefully studied on attitudes towards these issues, and the results are quite interesting. A very large majority of Americans thinkóagree with non-aligned countries. They think Iran, like other signers of the non-proliferation treaty, has a right to develop nuclear power but not nuclear weapons. The same large majority are in favor of establishing a nuclear weapons free zone in the entire Middle East, which would include Iran and Israel and any US forces which are a very large majority. Itís unmentionable. Again, a very large majority are opposed to threats, by three to one Americans are opposed to threats against Iran in favor of diplomacy. Every single candidate, every editorial, every columnist is in favor of threats. In fact, if Iran and the United States were functioning democracies or public opinion mattered, these conflicts would probably be resolved. And itís true over and over. 

One crucial means for preventing functioning democracy is the concentration and control of information. I mean sometimes itís, it becomes so surreal, like say, take the notion Ďenemy combatant.í Whatís an enemy combatant? Well, an enemy combatant is somebody defending his own country when you attack it. So if we invade another country and somebody, say, a fifteen year old, throws a stone at an American soldier, heís an enemy combatant. Itís a very interesting concept. Now, in fact, itís being used by others. So, for example, the government of Lithuania recently issued an arrest warrant for an enemy combatant. Whoís the enemy combatant? Well, it turns out to be a hero of the partisans who struggled against the Lithuanian government under the Nazis... He was a partisan leader who managed to survive, heís Jewish, went back to Israel and became a general in the Israeli army. He was the head of the Holocaust Museum for twenty years, and now Lithuania wants to arrest him as an enemy combatant because a partisan, mainly a terrorist, was fighting the Nazi client regime in the nineteen forties. Well, you know, theyíre basically right. I mean if somebody in Afghanistan who throws a stone at an American soldier in his own country is an enemy combatant then surely LithuaniaÖ if somebody is resisting his own government in his own country by means they recall terror, then, yeah, he must be an enemy combatant. This is so outlandish that the press canít even report it, you know. But thatís exactly what would happen if people elsewhere accepted a pair of principles. And these are not questionable. You cannot question, you cannot discuss them, you cannot think about them if you are properly educated person. Then it crosses a very wide spectrum.

Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, political activist, author, and lecturer. He is an Institute Professor emeritus and professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chomsky is well known in the academic and scientific community as the father of modern linguistics. Since the 1960s, he has become known more widely as a political dissident, an anarchist, and a libertarian socialist intellectual. He also established the Chomsky hierarchy, a classification of formal languages in terms of their generative power. His 1959 review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior challenged the behaviorist approaches to studies of behavior and language dominant at the time and contributed to the cognitive revolution in psychology. His naturalistic approach to the study of language has affected the philosophy of language and mind.[11] Beginning with his opposition to the Vietnam War Chomsky established himself as a prominent critic of US foreign and domestic policy. He is a self-declared adherent of libertarian socialism which he regards as "the proper and natural extension of classical liberalism into the era of advanced industrial society."[12] According to the Arts and Humanities Citation Index in 1992, Chomsky was cited as a source more often than any other living scholar during the 1980Ė92 period, and was the eighth most-cited source. At the same time, his status as a leading critic of American politics has made him a controversial figure.